Favorite canoe camping rivers, Midwest

Ok a geographer has struck out, and now I am seeking some enlightenment. I’m drawing blanks on Google searches, so I thought I would ask the question to the board. What are your favorite* canoe camping rivers in the Midwest/South?

*Let me eliminate the my Ozark Plateau; Buffalo, Kings, Eleven Point, Current, Jack’s Fork, Meramec, Gasconade, and Big Piney (MO), etc.

Why would I exclude those rivers? A little background would be in order. My wife and I were married on Memorial Day weekend, and our wedding gift was a tandem canoe. Since then, we have made a tradition of doing a solo downriver float on our anniversary weekend. We have covered the Ozarks for our anniversary and many other additional times. This year is our 10th anniversary, so I would like for the trip to be different/unique. We’ll go back to our Ozark streams next year.

We are not picky. We love the outdoors and canoeing/camping; blackwater, whitewater, coastal, lakes (not damned reservoirs). Trying to keep it within a days drive (12hrs) from Arkansas. Solitude would be great but not required. Looking for various options cause I know that it is all dependent on river levels at the time.

I posted this topic on the ACC’s forum, and someone referred me to this site. They also mentioned I should post my paddling experience/background. I’m a level III ACA certified whitewater solo & tandem instructor.

Let me hear your favorites, I would love to learn of an unknown (to me) treasure. Thanks,


Black Creek MS, DeSoto National Forest

One day or multi day available

A couple to choose from
Coming in right around a 12 hour drive from the Ozarks in Northern Wisconsin is the St Croix/ Namegagon National Scenic Rivers and the Flambeau River. Both have great streamside campsites. The Flambeau has rapids towards the lower end, mostly class one but also a few class twos. On both river systems they have all the support companies that a paddler would need.

Email me and I’ll tell you where you can get more information on both of those and more.

info (at) morrallriverfilms.com

Some Wisconsin Rivers

– Last Updated: Mar-14-14 1:15 PM EST –

Mark Morrall already mentioned the Namekagon and St. Croix Rivers in Wisconsin, and the Flambeau River. These have a nice north-woods feel to them. The Flambeau actually has some nice stretches with some rapids above and below one of the major reservoirs, so there are a couple of long nice stretches worth seeing. If you go up to that area and water levels are still near springtime or high summertime levels, I highly recommend the Jump River. The rapids are more frequent and mostly a bit more technical than those on the Flambeau, and the river is rather rarely paddled, so much so that it's the only river I've ever seen in which none of the rocks have scuff marks on them. We paddled it last summer, both above and below Highway N in Taylor County. Just below Highway N is Big Falls, which "normal" paddlers won't do (you won't be doing it in a tandem), but Little Falls a mile or so upstream from there could be a hoot if water levels are right.

I'm told that the Little Wolf River is very similar to the Jump River, but I've never seen it. It's not as far north, but farther east so the distance may be about the same.

A few hours closer to you and a flatwater favorite of ours is the lower Wisconsin River. In summer, we like to stay on the section downstream of Spring Green to avoid crowds, and downstream of Lone Rock is quieter still. You will see other paddlers on a holiday weekend though. If the water is high, camping options become few, but at normal late-spring and summer levels, sandbars are abundant. People either love the sandbars or hate them. There are some tricks to use when camping to help you avoid becoming a sandbar hater. This river is big and wide, and though it is not in remote country, houses near the river are nearly non-existent and farmland is never visible except for distant glimpses. Alongside the river, it's all dense woods.

The Kickapoo River in southwestern Wisconsin is incredibly unique and very pretty, as is the Upper Iowa River in the northeastern corner of Iowa (though this one "feels" less remote), but don't go to either of these on a holiday weekend.

Mark Morrall's river videos are worth checking out.

Trying to understand this forum. I think that I am replying to a topic I already started. Hope I am not starting a new one.

I have floated the St. Croix, but never any of its tributaries. Can’t wait to research these when I get home from work.

Thanks for the suggestions.


A couple thoughts…
Though there are a couple pretty lively drops, the Little Wolf is generally a lot milder than the Jump and doesn’t have a lot to offer as far as river campsites are concerned. When I did it I camped at Hartman Cr. campground. Don’t recall seeing any spots I’d consider ideal camp sites along the river itself, though there may be some above or below the section I did.

Judging by your experience level, the Wolf itself (near Langlade WI) might be more to your liking, though that’s a river that you’d better have your “game on” to paddle and there’s no river camping allowed. There are a couple campgrounds near Langlade. It gets gnarlier below “Gilmore’s Mistake” rapids.

The Jump needs at least 850 cfs at the Sheldon gauge and isn’t very long. Might not fit your needs for those reasons…

There’s a decent, though small, campground at Big Falls on the Jump but none of the nice DNR river-only accessible sites like you’ll find on the Namekagon, Manitowish (has that been mentioned yet?), or Flambeau.

The Lower Wisconsin offers just under 100 miles of sandbar camping on the river. There are very few places along the whole stretch of the Lower Wisconsin where there is nowhere to camp, especially for a small group. Muscoda is the best supply stop along the route for water and other resupply if needed, though there are places in Port Andrew and Wazeka where you could resupply in a pinch. Good public campgrounds at Muscoda and at Wyalusing at the Mississippi confluence. There’s a very good chance of facing headwinds on the Wisconsin. Its all flatwater, and lots of it. Most folks get to love it, as Guideboatguy and I do. Its a spacious, hypnotic river that encourages big, long, drifting thoughts. Very laid back except for the occasional headwinds. There can be thunderstorms also, of course, like any river.

There are some interesting rivers in Illinois - The Illinois and Fox leap to mind, but if you’re used to Ark. and Mo., you’d probably be disappointed and river camping on both is very limited.

Perhaps vic or Dick could make some suggestions about Iowa rivers. I’ve done a few of them and from what I’ve seen they’re very nice, but I don’t know about river camping opportunities for a trip like I think you’re considering.

Overall, I’d personally suggest the Flambeau, Manitowish, or Wisconsin depending on how much you like a North Woods setting and whether you get bored without whitewater.

Big Southfork in KY.
Big Southfork in KY might be an option.

south and mid atlantic options
its been many years since I’ve paddled the Rockcastle in Kentucky with its large boulders and remoteness. You can make it an overnight trip or start further up near Lamero to make it last several days.

In Tennessee, I’ve overnighted on clear creek. Popular stretches are Barnett to Lilly and Lilly to Nemo where you end up on the Obed river. Upper clear creak always sounded appealing for an extended trip as well. In WV the greenbrier river features a bike path and several state parks along its path. For more ww I think there’s a decent chance chance the “down elk” “top gauley” or bluestone (you could even stay in a lodge and take the tram out)would run memorial day weekend.

Know little of mid-west rivers
I don’t know much about rivers in the mid west. But I’m always curious about squiggly state lines.

Red River. See http://www.paddling.net/places/showReport.html?2054

The Wisconsin Rivers sound neater, but I prefer time in the canoe to time driving the car. The part of the Red those fellows paddled sounds neat and is likely a lot closer.


OK for tandem below Leatherwood
Ford, but not so easy for a tandem loaded with gear above that.

The Bogue Chitto starting in Mississippi
and continuing in Louisiana until it meets the Pearl. There’s a good new state park in LA about mid run. River is reasonably wild, usually has white sandbars for camping. Several outfitters might offer shuttle help. Reasonably wide range of water level for paddling.

Second Clear Creek and the BSF
Some rivers in central TN that have been reasonably popular for multi-day canoe trips have been the Elk and the Duck. I have also heard good things about the Buffalo (in Tennessee) but have not paddled it.

In addition to the Rockcastle, the Red River in Kentucky is a possibility. The upper section is Class II-III-. The middle section is Class I and canoe camping is allowed but the steep terrain limits suitable sites.

My overwhelming favorites for overnight trips in the KY/TN area are upper Clear Creek (on the Cumberland Plateau in the Obed/Emory watershed east of Crossville Tennessee) and the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River a bit further east and north, starting at Leatherwood Ford in TN and flowing north into KY. Either area is a fairly easy day’s drive ENE of central Arkansas.

Upper Clear Creek can be accessed at the Route 127 bridge which crosses Clear Creek north of Crossville TN. To run this upper stretch requires a fair bit of water (at least 1500 cfs on the Emory River gauge at Oakdale, or 400 cfs on the Clear Creek gauge at Lilly Bridge) which is a possibility for a Memorial Day weekend but certainly not a given. From the 127 bridge there is no access for 20 miles down to Barnett Bridge (also sometimes called Waltman Ford). The rapids are Class II at normal flows with one Class III just above Barnett Bridge. You can continue another 4.5 miles down to Jett Bridge (Class I-II) or yet 2.5 miles further down to Lilly Bridge (Class II+).

I would not recommend going past Lilly Bridge with a loaded tandem canoe unless you have considerable whitewater open boating experience. Below Lilly Bridge there is no reasonable access for another 8 miles down to Nemo Bridge on the Emory River. The last 1.5 miles of Clear Creek before it joins the Obed River contain three fairly significant Class III rapids which can easily become Class III+ -IV at the higher water levels required to put on at route 127 on upper Clear Creek.

The Big South Fork of the Cumberland River has a big watershed and is somewhat more likely to have sufficient flow on a Memorial Day Weekend. The usual put in is at Leatherwood Ford west of Oneida Tennessee. This access is about 14 river miles south of the KY/TN border. Usual take out sites are at Blue Heron (24 river miles below Leatherwood), Yamacraw Bridge (about 5 miles further downstream) or Alum Ford (another 5 miles further still).

The BSF flows through a very scenic gorge. Access sites are limited and the river can come up very quickly in heavy rain so check the weather report. For the most part, the run from Leatherwood to Blue Heron is Class I-II but there are 2 Class III rapids at normal flow which can quickly become Class IV or worse at high water. These are discussed on the American Whitewater site and are called Angel Falls and Devil’s Jump. Both are relatively straight forward for experienced whitewater boaters but there are undercut rocks and deaths have occurred.

Look into Sugar Creek in Indiana
It is a great river in Indiana that flows through some beautiful country, including Turkey Run State Park. It might fit with what you are looking for, especially if you like rivers like the Jack’s Fork.


What a resource
This is such a great resource, glad I was introduced. I always thought this site was for gear/boat reviews.

All of our rivers are in flood stage right now, so I have had the entire day to review all the rivers that have been mentioned. I’m looking for more camping rivers then whitewater. If the rivers have both, like a lot mentioned here then even better. I’ll get my whitewater fix here this spring and the two weeks in western Carolina for Week of Rivers.

I have learned a ton about Wisconsin, never realized there is so much whitewater. I loved the tanic waters of the St Croix, so I have picked several for my watch list. South Fork Flambeau (Fishtrap to Fifield), Namekagon (not sure of section as there is only one on American Whitewater), and the heart breaker Kickapoo. I have always wanted to visit the Driftless Area, but I am afraid that the warning not to visit on a holiday weekend is the same warning I would issue about the Buffalo River. However, on the Buffalo one can always float the 24 mile Lower Buffalo Wilderness Area and never see another boat cause they don’t have a 24 mile day rental for the yahoos. Is there not a section like that on the Kickapoo?

I’ve never floated the Cumberland Plateau in either TN or KY. I have camped and hiked the Red River Gorge, Big South Fork, and Obed areas. Would love to float all of those. I will watch for Big South Fork (Leatherwood to Blue Heron), & Clear Creek (US127 to Barnett). Anyone got any beta on Caney Fork, I have always appreciated it at 75mph from I40?

I’m also watching the two rivers from MS listed as well.

Thanks for all the information,



– Last Updated: Mar-16-14 7:05 PM EST –

I wish I had better news about the Kickapoo. Once you get into the lower sections, below where the weekend crowds are in summer, the valley opens up a lot so it's not as scenic, and since nobody paddles there, you can expect a lot of blockages from deadfall (that's what our best paddling guidebook of the area says - I haven't actually paddled there to see that for myself). In the lower part, the Kickapoo is a fairly typical farmland river, complete with muddy banks, and farm fields or pastures sometimes visible.

A couple of Alabama rivers
1. Little Cahaba / Cahaba River southeast of Tuscaloosa, AL

A trip report is here http://www.paddling.net/places/showReport.html?2905

Late May is a good time to see the Cahaba lilies in bloom. Here is a link to a site with pictures http://www.outdooralabama.com/fishing/freshwater/where/rivers/cahaba/

I camped at Bulldog Bend canoe rental many years ago.

2. Sipsey Fork east of Double Spring, AL

There is a older discussion on this river http://www.paddling.net/message/showThread.html?fid=advice&tid=877620

If you stay on the river it is really just a day float. There are some waterfalls in the Sipsey Wilderness that could be hiked from a river camp.

From Little Rock both of these trips would be about 5 or 6 hours.


There is some good info on the web about the Flambeau River System. However, regarding the South Fork in general, my guidebook says there are no designated campsites like the ones (which are fairly plentiful) on the North Fork. There are two campsites on teh South Fork at which public use is allowed, in spite of the fact that they are apparently on private land.

Also, the South Fork is more rain- and season-dependent than the North Fork, and since the section you mentioned is farther upstream than the popular stretches listed in my guidebook, I’d expect the having-enough-water issue to be of greater concern there. Of course, you can always shift your trip to a more-downstream section if water on the upper part is too low.

I’ve never paddled the South Fork, but from all I have read, parts of it must be pretty nice, and also challenging. With any luck, there will be enough water for you to take advantage of that. There’s nothing on the North Fork that would challenge you at all, and the rapids are few and farther between as well. Cedar Rapids and Beaver Dam rapids are the “worst” that the North Fork has to offer, and they are pretty nice in their own way, especially if the water is up. You’ll find in your research that the various stretches of the North Fork can’t be paddled as one long trip, due to all the dams (all the towns in Wisconsin that are named after river rapids have dams, and there’s a lot of drop along the North Fork. I think the South Fork was spared all the “improvements” of 100 years ago because it is so much smaller, with very little volume at all when water levels are low).

That tannin-stained water seems to affect some of us in strange ways. All my life such water has seemed to have a magical quality, a real statement that “this place is in the north woods” for sure, but also just the fact that it obscures what’s down there creates a mood that I love. When we paddled the Jump River last summer, one day was very dark and cloudy (rained like crazy too) and that dark water was as black as can be. Wonderful to paddle on.

What he said…
Many years ago I did the whole Kickapoo. Back then anyhow there was no problem with encountering other folks on the lower parts but it went through more farmland. There were quite a few small log jams as GBG suggested. You will see cattle down there. There were bluffs, though, and we camped rather covertly. I recall lining through one log jammed little riffle that required working from a crumbling little cliff well above the river. In the fall you can do a “three rivers” trip down there. Take the Kickapoo, turn right on the Wisconsin, and left on the Mississippi. Fall colors change from red (oaks) in the Kickapoo valley to yellow (maples) in the Wisconsin and swamp-like sloughs when you hit the “big muddy.”

I did both Cedar and Beaver dam rapids on the Flambeau for the first time last year.

Beaver Dam rapids is big and noisy but very straight forward. One big powerful straight ahead chute. There are a couple submerged boulders hiding in the white on the left of the chute that I felt with the paddle, but I don’t think they’d be a problem for anyone at reasonable water levels. There are all sorts of warnings about Beaver Dam in the guide books and people have died there (seven years ago was the most recent I was told) but I think they must have not taken the main chute. There are big rollers on either side of the chute and the standing waves were large and would be bigger yet in high water. I doubt an experienced white water paddler would have any problems there except in very high water. If you don’t like lake paddling, the take out is on the right just past Beaver Dam rapids and involves a very long up hill carry to avoid the flat water above the dam.

Cedar Rapids is the “crux” of that stretch of the Flambeau. The best path is to the left of the island, start way right and paddle like hell cross current. Upstream ferry a bit. There’s a hole on the right just at the tip of the island that I didn’t see when I scouted and it will suck you in if you’re not careful. Got me the first time through, but I went back and did it right. At higher water levels there are other paths both right and left of the island. Cedar Island itself is a great lunch spot. Rapids all around you.

For some reason most of the rapids on that stretch of the Flambeau are three or four drops and stretched very far apart with flats in between. So far apart that I don’t see why they consider them parts of the same rapids. Maybe they were running short of names?

Nice campsites though. There’s a particularly good one where the two forks of the river meet.

Might want to look at Mike Svob’s two books on Paddling (Northern & Southern) Wisconsin.

Caney Fork
I too have seen the lower Caney Fork many times as it meanders back and forth under I 40 between Gordonsville and Cookeville, TN but have never paddled it. Anything I say about it is second-hand info from people who have, guidebooks, or the American Whitewater site.

The upper Caney Fork is a hairy 9 mile Class IV-V whitewater run. Put in is a bridge at the tiny town of Clifty and take out is at the confluence of Bee Creek. The Class V rapid (Devil’s Kitchen) has a Class III-IV approach. The whole run is rife with undercuts. Needless to say, this stretch is not suitable for canoe camping.

The middle Caney Fork is a possibility. You can read about it here:


The stretch is 20-27 miles in length depending on the put-in site and how much of the backwaters of Great Falls Lake you are willing to paddle. The stretch is primarily Class I-II but there is apparently a Class III somewhere. The problem is determining if there is sufficient flow for this stretch.

The dam pool at Great Falls Dam (Great Falls Lake) is fairly small and the run from the dam to the backwaters of Center Hill Lake is only about a mile. This is the site of the famous “rodeo hole” near Rock Island State Park which is the backyard playground of Eric Jackson.

The lower Caney Fork is the stretch below Center Hill Lake which is visible from I 40. This stretch is 23-27 miles in length from the dam to the last take-out above the Cumberland River confluence, or the first access below the confluence. It is Class I and would make a good canoe-camping stream with one caveat. The water levels vary considerably and rapidly depending on whether the dam at Center Hill Lake is generating or not. Gravel bars with inviting campsites can quickly become inundated when the dam releases, so if you do this stretch, camp well above the streambed, and try to get a release schedule for the dam.

Niobrara River in Nebraska?